June 30, 1996
by Constantine C. Menges
Not long afterward, these same soldiers were surprised to see us again as they entered a voting precinct to cast their ballots for the next president of Russia. Their commanding officer and the chairman of the precinct election committee had met us as we arrived. They were pleasant but wary as we explained that we were part of an international election observer team invited by the Russian government and organized by the U.S. International Republican Institute (IRI). We had shown our official credentials from the Russian Election Commission and our passports to prove our identities. We were then permitted to observe the voting process, interview the precinct chairman and the representatives of competing political parties who were there as observers for the entire voting day, and conduct an informal exit poll of those who had voted.
On this Sunday, June 16, about 70 million citizens were voting for the next president throughout Russia. If a candidate won 50 percent of the votes, he would assume the powerful presidency. If not, there would be a run-off election between the two leading candidates. The International Republican Institute has been doing valuable work to encourage and help build democratic institutions in Russia since 1991 and had fielded election observers in each of the major votes held since Boris Yeltsin was elected president on June 12, 1991. That experience led IRI president Lorne Craner, to send a U.S. observer group which would visit 10 major regions of Russia, a country stretching across 11 times zones.
Since other democracies and international organizations also sent accredited observer groups, more than 1,100 foreign observers were spread throughout Russia. The contributions of these observers missions have included: making a clear symbolic statement on behalf of democracy and fair elections; encouraging the genuinely pro-democratic parties to make their own best efforts to send volunteers who would monitor the voting process; and, deterring those who might commit blatant fraud because they could not be sure where observers might suddenly appear. It was evident that the democratic political leaders with whom we met before the election and their volunteers who we met at the polling sites viewed our being in Russia as an expression of American solidarity with their hopes for a future of freedom.
Based upon reports from all observers in the IRI delegation which he chaired, Sen. John McCain announced in Moscow on June 17 that the first round of the Russian presidential election gave evidence of "a continuing improvment of democracy in Russia." To decide the future of Russia there would be a run-off between Mr. Yeltsin, who received 35 percent of the votes in the first round, and the leader of the Communist party, Gennady Zyuganov, who received 32 percent.
Before this vote, there had been widespread allegations that either or both Mr. Yeltsin or Mr. Zyuganov would use their political allies at the regional and state (oblast) level to rig the counting of votes to favor their candidate. Russians recall that one of Stalin's favorite phrases about Soviet-era elections was: what matters is not how people vote, but who controls the count. Among the reform groups, there is concern that the Communist party will seek to inflate its vote count in the regions and oblasts where the party controls the local electoral commission. Members of the Communist party explicitly threatened civil protest and disruption if they should lose the election because of what they believe to be fraud.
Unfortunately, the current process for combining the votes of individual precincts opens the way to charges of fraud in reaching the final count. My observer group in Siberia visited 12 voting precincts in a day that began at 7:30 a.m. and ended at two the next mourning after we had watched ballot boxes being opened, votes counted and a final precinct tally sheet prepared. This precinct vote tally sheet was assigned by all of the precinct election commission members, a copy was made available to the public at the precinct including the still present observers for Mr. Yeltsin and Mr. Zyuganov. We then followed into the Siberian white night as the tally sheets were taken from the precincts to one of the 46 regional election centers.
There the precinct votes were computerized, aggregated and transmitted electronically both to the state level and to the Central Election Commission in Moscow. As observers, we could verify that the handwritten tally for the precinct that was posted and displayed at the regional center was the same as had been displayed at the precinct but there was no clear and rapid way of verifying that votes entered into the computer system and the aggregation of the votes at the regional or state level was accurate, nor that the count was accurate at the Central Election Commission in Moscow.
For Russia as a whole, 94,000 local precincts transmit the vote count to 3,000 regional centers which compile it for 89 state level governments which in turn each transmit the results to Moscow. It would be possible by taking a representative, random sample of 2 percent, or about 2,000 of Russia's precincts, to compute a reasonably accurate outcome of the election within 18 hours after the closing of the polls - roughly the same time as the election authorities produce their first vote projections. This methodology is well developed in the United States and a Russian civic organization, the Center for Liberal-Conservative Policy, encouraged by Robert Krieble, has put together a credible plan to conduct such an independent and parallel vote count. In 1995 they sought funding to do this from USAID which was not provided and believe they could do this for the second round for about $30,000 (150 million Russian rubles). This may be one of the best investments in democratization that U.S. donors could make. Such a parallel vote count announced in advance could deter fraud in the final counting and could play a major role in legitimating the results of the election, if fair, and in preventing the Communist party from using allegations of fraud to create social and political unrest.
In the days before the vote on June 16, our observer group met with leaders of all the major political parties. The communist leader was confident and energetic; his modern office was spacious, well-equipped, he had a personal staff and an eight-story office building full of Party members whose chief goal was to win the presidential election. In contrast, leaders of the three pro-democratic parties operated out of tiny offices in apartment houses or run-down buildings. They have dedicated but very small staffs and hoped that their volunteers could mobilize their voters.
Leaders of both major parties in the United States have expressed their commitment to help the Russian people build new pro-democratic political parties in order to level the competitive field with the entrenched well-funded and well-organized Communist party. Whatever the outcome of this presidential election, it will be important that the United States increase its efforts in democratic institution building. A communist regime in Russia controlling 8,000 strategic nuclear weapons, may once again pose a serious international threat; a democratic Russia will be a peaceful Russia.
This op-ed originally appeared in The Washington Times on June 30, 1996
Dr. Constantine Menges, a scholar, author, and university professor, was a Hudson Institute senior fellow until July, 2004.
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